Saraswati thumps her foot on the floor. “It’s been three decades. I’ve earned
an honest living and now I am called a drug dealer. Why? We can be shut down
Saraswati arrived in
Hampi, leading her two shambling sons, Krishna Prasad and Ashok. She was 19 then,
following the trail of her husband, an English-speaking guide. He wasn’t a
permanent worker. Income was never a guarantee. He’d disappear for weeks on
sporadic tours and his promises, of money, of return were just words: old,
spent and useless.
She squatted in the ancient mantapa like most migrants. Opposite the 7th century Virupaksha Temple. She made chai, sold chai. Saraswati would spend hours on the banks of the Tungabhadra while her boys bathed watching the “egg boats” ferrying people back and forth.
One warm afternoon in 1983 she crossed over to a kinder shore. To Virupapur Gadda.
There she saw something that Hampi could never offer. Calm. There was no stall in sight, no hoarding. It was rugged and spare. She had heard of travellers staying in Gadda but there were no hotels, no rooms. When she walked the quiet street for the first time, locals stared, like eyes at a peephole. She was an outsider once.
Saraswati had no plan only a tip from the egg boatman. “They live further along the banks, the hippies,” he said.
“How will I find them? How will I earn?” she had asked.
“They will find you,” he had promised.
But at first no one
came. There was nothing but hunger, time and the river.
She had seen travellers floating about the village with lean limbs and scattered hair. She’d seen them perched on top of boulders at sunsets, singing and playing the flute. Some lounged in hammocks staring at the sky. Most cooked on open fires. A few got high. In the night they would disappear into the dark, the deep.
The hippies had made the wild their home.
She walked the length of the village and up a snaky path. There were no monuments here, no mantapa to make a home. So she set up a small shack in the vacant woods.
“It was like I was the first inhabitant in a world that had just been created,” she recalls.
On the third day, as she cooked on an open fire, a traveller sauntered over. She let him eat for free. He came again the next day, with two others. She did not speak their language, nor they hers. She managed to charge them ₹5 each.
A German stopped by. He told her she was beautiful in broken Hindi. He ate with her for almost a month and then let her into a secret: “The white man loves bread.”
Together they devised a method to bake without an oven. She would place a large steel dish on the fire and sprinkle it with sand. The sand would retain heat. She’d put another dish with dough and cover it with a large dish. She’d seal it with cow dung.
That’s how Saraswati baked Gadda’s first loaf of brown bread. That’s how the first business came to be. For years, Saraswati was known as the Bread Lady. She didn’t think of naming her place. Years later another bakery opened so she finally named hers: The Island Bakery.
Today, residents of
Gadda cherish a creation story that begins with Saraswati crossing the river.
The owner of the most popular guesthouse in the Gadda, Shanti, will tell you:
“She didn’t come with greed. She came to live. She was like Eve, the first
woman that lived on that hill.”
Despite the tourists Gadda has remained a solitary place. It is a cul-de-sac, with one bumpy road in and out of the village. In the monsoon tractors plough the fields blasting Bollywood classics. During tourist season, which runs from November to March, the village morphs. Farmers work in guesthouses and the rooms are filled with happy noises.
Gadda, as its residents know it, is a village that doesn’t feature on many
maps. There are no road signs leading to it. Most people on the NH169 haven’t
even heard of it. Hampi. That’s where everyone is ushered, to the majestic
monuments from the Vijayanagar Empire. For if you are a traveller, that’s the
only place of interest, the only destination.
Today most of the rooms are still vacant but they won’t be for long. Each one of the 312 will be occupied once the season arrives. Of this the guesthouse owners are certain. Most likely, there won’t be enough rooms for the tourists. There will be waiting lists and that’s how it’s been for the past 14 years. When the travellers arrive in Gadda, the room rates are hiked and that’s when the Guest House owners celebrate because for six months of the year, the village waits.
Gadda wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for geography. It is a small island on the Tungabhadra opposite Hampi. A farming village whose destiny changed. But people here will tell you destiny changes, just like seasons do.
Despite the tourists Gadda has remained a solitary place. It is a cul-de-sac, with one bumpy road in and out of the village. The road is nestled between chrome-green rice fields and canopied by coconut trees. In the horizon are hills with boulders strewn about like marbles by giants.
In the monsoon tractors plough the fields blasting Bollywood classics. During tourist season, which runs from November to March, the village morphs. Farmers work in guesthouses and the rooms are filled with happy noises.
“We thought we were the lucky ones. The monuments were far enough, they teased us from a distance,” says Madan Lal. But the linkage between Hampi and the Gadda became stronger when UNESCO appeared on the scene.
the Monuments of Hampi as World Heritage. By then tourism had already cast its
shadow on the site. Ancient salu mantapas, a medieval marketplace, were
occupied again. Restaurants, stores selling anklets, Karnatak jewellery, harem
pants and Internet cafés: all emerged in a jumbled heap. This stretch became
the Hampi Bazaar. The hub of commercial activity. The bazaar was centered
around the Virupaksha Temple and the first curio was less than two metres away.
UNESCO surveyors found the site in a state of chaos. The state government’s determination to build a bridge over the Tungabhadra threatened the integrity of the site, UNESCO had noisily claimed. But construction wasn’t halted. In 1999 the Monuments of Hampi were listed as World Heritage in Danger.
A news report filed in The Hindu in 2000 states, “The S M Krishna Government has woken up belatedly to the reported threat by UNESCO authorities to withdraw the World Heritage Site classification given to Hampi, in Bellary district. The unauthorised construction activities, quarrying, building of bridges, encroachments near the historic site and the menace of ‘Hippies’, have all combined to endanger and degrade the world famous Hampi.”
Eventually construction on the two bridges was abandoned but the site’s and Gadda’s reputation had been tarnished.
But by then Madan Lal had already tasted life on the tourist trail. Bad droughts had turned his land to stone. He would watch Krishna Prasad, Saraswati’s son, walk back and forth with a satchel heavy with bread.
Madan Lal had seen the boy grow up in front of his eyes. He had also seen Saraswati prosper. Young Krishna’s bicycle was proof. He flagged Krishna down. He peered into the satchel and bought a piece of bread.
The following season Madan Lal opened his door to a table full of sweet treats baked by his wife—bread and cake and chocolate balls. He called it the German Bakery and registered it with the panchayat.
Until 2004 the gram panchayat had given commercial licences to the businesses on Gadda. The guesthouse owners paid taxes. But in 2005 all licences were cancelled. This coincided with the formation of the Hampi World Heritage Management Authority (HWHMA).
The body had been entrusted with the management of all developmental activity in Hampi and its surroundings including Gadda.
Then and now, HWHMA has had no representation from panchayat members. In 2005 the panchayat couldn’t issue trade licences without clearance by the Authority.
The HWHAMA held meetings in the Gadda in 2007. No new constructions were allowed. Licences would not be renewed.
“They gave us false assurance. They said they would help organise the Gadda and help the businesses,” says Krishna Prasad. “Suddenly we became illegal.” Guesthouse owners from Gadda have taken the matter to the High Court in Bangalore.
He calls her Saraswati Aunty. He says she inspired him.
Krishna Murti didn’t want to be a farmer. His father wanted him to do more
with his life. He was a B.Com graduate and his brother had studied engineering.
But jobs were difficult to come by then. Working the fields that year wasn’t an
option. He said the drought had sealed his fate.
The brothers decided to open a small restaurant. The opening coincided with the shooting of China Gate, a Hindi film set in Hampi. Set material was up for sale and Krishna Murthy bought plywood. With this he made the Gadda’s first hut. Like the ones in Goa.
He called his guesthouse Shanti. The plywood is long gone and has been replaced by mudrooms. Each has a swing on its patio. Krishna’s older brother continues to farm the four acres in front of the rooms. When the river swells you can see it from the swing and in the horizon the top of Virupaksha Tower cuts the sky.
Shanti was the second guesthouse. In 1992 there were only three rooms. Now there are 38 mud huts. HWHMA had drawn up a Master Plan to manage the World Heritage site. It states “the entire Virupapura Gadda is characterised by illegal resorts/hotel/lodging activities. These developments are leading to immoral and anti-social activities adversely affecting the World Heritage site.”
“It’s nonsense,” he says. Krishna Murti was one of the few who had managed to convert the land to commercial use. He paid taxes but then even his license was revoked. He is also fighting a case in the High Court. “They want us to become farmers again, because that is the image they want to promote,” he says.
But Gadda has changed: there are 300 mud huts scattered around the village. As per the guidelines of the Archaeological Survey of India, all are well beyond the mandated 150-metre distance from the Vijayanagar monuments.
Despite their linkage, Hampi and the Gadda developed differently. Hampi evolved
to become an overgrown town amid the ruins. Gadda remained simple, isolated
from the monuments.
sharmila Noronha was fed up with the chaos of Palolem Beach in Goa. She had
been running a restaurant there for 11 years. She wanted some quiet. A change
of scene. Goa-Gokarna-Hampi. That’s where the tourist trail travelled. Hampi:
that’s where she would go.
“Hampi was idyllic,” she recalls. Sharmila had fallen in love. With her chef, Baldev Raj Thakur. He was a short quiet man. She was a loud boisterous woman. After two years together, they began planning for a child. “Gadda was an ideal place to raise a baby,” says Thakur.
Until then the Gadda was off the radar. The Lonely Planet only caught up with it in its 11th edition. It reads: “The most laid-back scene is just north of the river in tranquil Virupapur Gaddi. Many travellers, though, find the isolation a little unnerving…”
The couple crossed over. First they rented a small restaurant space overlooking the river. Then after 14 years of saving, Sharmila ventured to the forgotten tangled wilderness at the edge of the village. She would buy the land. They would make a home and she would finally open her own guesthouse. The Goan Corner. Gadda is the only home their son, Amit, knows.
“If they wanted to stop us they should not have let us come here in the first place,” says Sharmila.
She has all her paperwork in order. She had paid her taxes. She went to the five UNESCO meetings that debated the fate of the village.
“UNESCO officials told us not to worry. Everything would be accounted for. Even a banana tree. Fat chance,” she says.
“What has she asked for at the meetings?”
“Most of us guest house owners requested guidelines. The Master Plan encourages eco tourism and I want to learn. Change is beneficial for me. I will comply because it’s in my interest,” says Sharmila.
But in the end no guidelines were issued. Dialogue had come to a halt and there have been no meetings in the past four years.
A 2008 UNESCO report, “expresses its concern over illegal constructions and other developments, such as social housing projects, within the extended boundaries which are being considered for the possible extension of the property, particularly in Virupapura Gada Island and Hampi Villages, which appear to have a negative impact on the integrity of the landscape.”
“Monuments I can understand. But landscape? There is not a single tall building in sight,” says Sharmila.
In my correspondence with Moe Chiba, UNESCO’s Program Specialist for Culture in Delhi, Chiba stressed that the UNESCO guidelines were generic and the onus of responsibility fell upon local governments.
The District of Bellary should be managing the site fairly and equitably according to her. But communication between HWHMA and UNESCO has dwindled. HWHMA had interpreted the guidelines in “too simplistic a manner.” UNESCO, Chiba claims, had never ordered the entire local population to be wiped out.
She adds, “We believe that the surrounding community can/should benefit from World Heritage sites for their well-being. There has always been tension between the conservation works and needs and aspiration of local population; and the effort for conciliation or to find middle ground to satisfy both the purposes is painstaking and everlasting, but necessary.
“Do the guest houses have to go?”
“No. Unlike what some people may think, development is not necessarily to be banned in a heritage precinct, as long as it is done in a planned manner not to destroy the heritage value of the place,” Chiba said.
In the absence of guidelines and communication with the HWHAMA many guesthouses have tried their own attempts at being eco-friendly. Most rooms are made of mud. Colourful spirals drown the monotony of gobad patti walls. They look like the houses found in the surrounding 27 villages.
“We didn’t want our village to look any different,” says Sharmila.
The sound of buildings collapsing carries over the river. Suraj hasn’t got
used it despite hearing it every day.
“My friends in Hampi
have been sent far away. No tourist goes to where they have been moved to in
Kaddirampur. How can they earn there?” asks Suraj.
He works on the boats
from morning to evening, plying people back and forth. A ride costs ₹5. His
home is in
Hanuman Halli, Gadda’s neighbouring village. Guesthouses have come up there as well. “One day they will call us
encroachers, they will kick us out as well,” he says.
The HWHMA recommendations have been debated in the Karnataka High Court. The court directed authorities to ensure that “no residential occupation” be permissible within the protected areas. It further stated that no occupants would be permitted within a 100-metre radius of the monuments.
The drive to clear Hampi of encroachers started in July 2011. Six bulldozers appeared from behind the Virupaksha Temple. Nobody was prepared for what followed.
In one day’s notice,
settlements were demolished. Over the next few months, houses were painted with
red crosses. Most feared that this would mean they were next. They were; 362 of
“They are looking for
an excuse to kick us out too,” says Saraswati.
New Years Eve had been tense. The night had started innocently with an Englishman playing a riff of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond on the guitar. To two others, a Frenchmen and a Croatian, the riff was an invitation. They walked over with guitars. Like most decent jam sessions, this one was spontaneous. Hendrix, Beatles, Floyd, one after another.
Three policemen swaggered in. They eyed the musicians suspiciously and called out to Krishna Prasad. “Stop the music,” the officer said.
“No more party,”
another added pointing his finger at the mute guitar. At 11:45 p.m.
The police returned the next morning. They kept asking about hippies. She’s told them time and again, “There are no more hippies here. These are backpackers.”
Last season would be her last, she had thought. The police and the DC viewed all the guesthouses and backpackers as uncouth, like graffiti on the World Heritage Site. Graffiti that needed to be erased.
“They have called us
everything: mafia, dacoits, drug lords,” she says.
Guesthouse owners desperate to prove their innocence resorted to extreme methods. Thakur installed cameras in the Goan Corner. Others held a conference: members of the Gadda Hotel Association would visit the DC. They would attempt at reasoning with her.
Two months ago six motorbikes left the Gadda for Koppal. Twelve residents reached DC’s office in the morning. They waited for the large part of the day. The DC, a busy lady, saw them in the evening. She gave them 20 minutes. No answers, no solutions. Just accusations.
In my meeting with her she cited “drugs” as the impetus behind closure.
“Have you caught anyone on drug related charges?”
“No but we have heard some stories,” she said.
“Are there no drugs in Bangalore?” asks a guesthouse owner. “Will they shut down the entire city because of a few?”
In this no-man’s land, the policing has taken a severe blow. Guesthouse owners claim: “Officers demand a fee for operation. Calls are placed and rooms with the best views are demanded over night. Officers dine and drink at the owner’s expense. Drug dealers have not been locked up.”
One rainy afternoon, Pursh Ram of Roots and Rocks, opened up. “They want Taj,
Oberoi, bada paisa here,” he said, rubbing his fingers together.
He say he knows what will happen. He’s seen it in a dream. Gadda will be closed down. Another village that would fall under UN jurisdiction will survive. Anegundi. It was once the seat of the Vijayanagar Empire. There Shama Pawar has restored a heritage house through the Kishkinda Trust. The rate per night of the Maharani House is ₹20,000. “Nothing will happen to her, to the house. This is the rot of our system. The ones with power never fall. She has political clout in Delhi, she’s safe,” says Ram.
But she too is
fighting a case in Bangalore.“They want to erase the past three decades. They
want to forget it happened and they can do it. How many people know we are
Not many do. Did you?